Dean Heller to enter governor’s race in battleground Nevada

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller will announce a bid for governor of Nevada on Monday, joining a crowded field of Republican hopefuls vying to unseat Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak in 2022.

His entrance into the race in the battleground state adds a high-profile candidate to what’s expected to be among the most competitive of the next year’s 36 gubernatorial elections.

The Carson City Republican Party has scheduled Heller to appear for a “special announcement” at their headquarters. A party official and person close to the campaign not authorized to publicly comment on the “special announcement” ahead of time confirmed the former senator would declare his candidacy at an event in the state capital.

If he does, he’ll join a field that includes Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, attorney Joey Gilbert, surgeon Fred Simon and businessmen Guy Nohra. The gubernatorial primary is scheduled to take place in June 2022.

Heller, through a representative, declined to comment about his plans for the announcement. At a Basque-themed barbecue hosted by U.S. Senate candidate Adam Laxalt in August, he told The Associated Press he would decide after Labor Day.

Carson City Republican Committee Chair Scott Hoen wouldn’t say what Heller’s planned announcement entailed. He said he expected 50 to 60 guests to pack into the chapter’s small space Monday morning.

The unspecified announcement will be followed by events in Reno and Las Vegas, but Hoen said Carson City had special significance to Heller as his hometown.

Heller, 61, mostly withdrew from political life after losing a hard-fought 2018 U.S. Senate race against Democrat Jacky Rosen, during which he weathered attacks from both left and right.

Then-President Donald Trump berated him in 2017 for initially opposing one Republican-led effort to repeal parts of the Affordable Care Act.

Heller and Trump reconciled during the drafting of the federal tax cut passed later that year and the two men campaigned together in the lead-up to November 2018. On a Trump campaign-organized call with reporters in August 2020, he paid tribute to the president and said he had been spending most of his time working on his farm and digging irrigation ditches in northern Nevada’s rural Smith Valley. But Heller has not publicly weighed on Trump’s false claims of fraud and some of his supporters attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

In a statement after the Carson City GOP announced the event, Mallory Payne, a spokeswoman for the Nevada Democratic Victory group working to reelect Sisolak, previewed Nevada Democrats’ line of attack for 2022.

“Dean Heller is entering a civil war, but let’s be clear — he’s going into battle for himself, not Nevadans. Nevadans already rejected Heller once after he prioritized caving to his base to save his career over doing his job,” she said, referencing his relationship with Trump and decision to ultimately vote for a pared-down ACA repeal proposal.

If Heller can address for voters his bumpy history with Trump, who remains a standard-bearer for Nevada Republicans, he’ll likely enjoy widespread name recognition and a rolodex of donors he’s collected through five statewide runs — two for U.S. Senate and three for secretary of state.

His entrance into the race comes as other candidates are attempting to consolidate support from top donors.

Last week, a political action committee led by Mark Hutchison, the former lieutenant governor who is now chairing Lombardo’s campaign, raised eyebrows when it submitted a $2.1 million campaign finance filing months before an end-of-year deadline, reporting contributions from a company incorporated last year that lists Las Vegas real estate developer Robert Bigelow as its sole officer. In Nevada, independent PACs registered through the state are not subject to campaign spending limits.

In recent months, Heller has canvassed GOP clubs throughout Nevada ahead of his expected announcement. He gave a three-minute stump speech alongside fellow candidates Gilbert and Lombardo at a rural county Republican event in June. At the Basque Fry last month, he glad-handed attendees in the general audience and VIP section but did not speak.

Nevada Democrats currently hold three U.S. House seats, two U.S. Senate seats, the governorship and control of both statehouse chambers. But President Joe Biden won the state by 2.4 percentage points — a smaller margin for Democrats than all but four battlegrounds. Sisolak defeated Laxalt by 4.1 percentage points in 2018.

Republicans hope past trends that have swung midterm voters toward the opposition party will allow them to flip governorships and U.S. Senate seats. They hope that the pandemic’s effect on Nevada’s tourism-powered economy and opposition to Sisolak’s coronavirus measures will convince voters.

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Sam Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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